Children always are playing make-believe, pretending that they are various wild animals in the jungle, or rocketship pilots, or things like that. Sometimes when they really get into the game, they go so far as to burglarize the master bedroom and put on mommy and daddy’s outfits and pretend that their parents clothes make them mommy and daddy for a day. It doesn’t, but the children playing the game, god bless them, instinctively know it. Our military is playing make-believe with our decade and a half long series of objectiveless evil wars, and dammit, they don’t realize it. They aren’t as aware as little children about themselves, and we are all suffering from their lack of self-awareness that a five year old has.
Proof of this comes from yet another Important Guest Speaker From DC drug in by the Strauss Center for International Relations, the foreign affairs branch of the LBJ School of Government, for the edification of the students and whatever engaged part of the faculty and citizenry who wants to show up and listen. Jeff Eggers, former Navy SEAL, and until recently the White House Special Assistant to the President on National Security, and Special Advisor on Afghanistan, was the guest speaker, and his topic was of course our war in Afghanistan.
As is usually always the case, the student turnout was about 30, with slightly more, 40?, silverhairs who are some UT faculty and some engaged citizens. As is always the case at these events, there was no news media presence save the student newspaper, which as bad as it has been for the past decade or two doesn’t really count as any sort of newspaper. It didn’t used to be so bad; but there is even less nothing in it than there is in the local shrunken Cox chain daily monopoly. With nobody there from the local newspaper or TV or radio stations, hell I guess the wars, and the people directing them, don’t count as news either.
That day was a rainout for me, so I showed up early and grabbed a seat in the building atrium and got out the book I was reading. Thirty pages later I looked up to see Robert Chesney, Director of the Strauss Center, walking in and taking a seat with someone who is obviously the guest speaker. Ex-career military, particularly combat arms, are easy enough to spot from their not being fat and out of shape like most males in their age cohort are, and from their erect carriage, their always starting off on their left foot, and from a more focused and intense air to them. All of these are permanent marks put on a person by years in the military.
Chesney and Eggers sat down to a quick takeout lunch and started talking, mostly shop about who was in and out in DC. Once they finished eating, I wandered over and introduced myself to Mr. Eggers. I explained to him that I was an Austin resident interested in foreign affairs, and that the LBJ School had me on a freezeout on account of their, present company in particular’s, not liking the hard questions I asked. I explained that I would greatly appreciate it if he showed the courtesy of picking me for a question. Mr. Eggers replied that he never had any problems with hard questions, and that he’d certainly make sure that I got to ask my question.
The talk said nothing noteworthy. There were no insights to be gained from Mr. Eggers’ words about the war in Afghanistan and that’s probably true about anyone from inside the Beltway talking about the topic. If you read the newsweeklies, you already know what is going to be said. This is the level of subject expertise and discourse on most any big issue nowadays, and the wars are the biggest issue, bar none, there is. Even if our political system and newsmedia say otherwise by both their generally ignoring them and the all-is-well-honestly tone that badly infects such little reportage they bother to give them.
Robert Chesney once again took up too much of the speaker’s time with his own podium grabbing beforehand. Once the talk was over, he grabbed the podium again, and ran the Q&A, mostly for the benefit of his fellow faculty, who were selected for questions whether they had their hands up or not. Nobody, particularly the students, asked a good question, mostly from deferential attitudes towards authority and their own lack of imagination. Probably like that at any graduate school of government nowadays. I wasn’t picked, big surprise there.
I walked up to Mr. Eggers afterwards. Told him that I enjoyed his talk, and appreciated his showing up here in Austin, but that he’d earned a solid Fail on this exercise, sorry. Eggers asked me what I meant? I replied: “Mr. Eggers, I talked to you beforehand and you personally assured me that I would be picked for a question. I wasn’t. You didn’t live up to your personal word. That itself is grounds for a fail. You let Mr. Chesney hog the microphone; we didn’t come here to listen to him; we came here to listen to you. You certainly should have known that, and acted on that. You didn’t. It was your event and you didn’t run it; you let someone less qualified run it for you and they did it badly. You got trained as an officer to evaluate situations and step up and act when things are not proceeding properly. You didn’t here. You fail; no two ways about it.
Eggers was a good sport about it, and said with a hint of a wry smile that sorry, but he was no longer an officer. I replied, coldly: “No, Mr. Eggers: once an officer, always an officer.” Spell of blank silence after that one. We talked a bit more, and I asked him what he was doing now that he was out of the White House. Eggers replied that he was going to start training young officers to keep them from making the same mistakes we’d made in our recent wars. “Well, Mr. Eggers, there’s a good lesson here today to impart to them, don’t you think?” Silence on that one too.
Maybe by now Mr. Eggers has stopped bleeding from those cuts. The fact is that all militaries have always, out of necessity and custom both, inculcated those habits of command, those whether we like them or not necessary human habits of command previously iterated, in its officer corps the same way they inculcate erect posture and left foot first. Situational awareness, evaluation of the situation, stepping up and making the necessary decisions, issuing the appropriate orders, and assuming responsibility for them once you do is called officering up, a close cousin to manning up. . You can’t officer for 20 years like Mr Eggers did in a real armed force without that getting as permanently ingrained into you as the head up shoulders back left foot first gets permanently ingrained into all from the drill field.
If these traits don’t get inculcated the officer corps has not been properly trained by the military it serves in and officers won’t do their job right, which by necessity means that the military can’t do its job right. Without these habits, without those properly trained officers, the military isn’t being a real armed force; they are some pretense of an armed force. They aren’t doing soldiering; they are doing some greater or lesser degree of passable or less imitation of it. They are playing an adult version of make-believe, with fancy uniforms and expensive toys, playing make-believe military in the same way children play at make believe adulthood by parading in their parents’ outfits.
Eggers is an average specimen of that. He got trained mostly to be a good bureaucratic player instead of an officer. Pretty much like anyone who goes to college gets trained to. Different skill sets there, of smoothness and politesse and sycophancy and buckpassing, than officering is. Law school is the best training for that sort of thing; just ask Mr. Chesney; he’ll tell you. Anybody wants to know why we have done so badly in our 15+ years of wars, well, here’s one good place to look for an explanation. We have a make-believe military that isn’t, and can’t, do the necessary hard job of war. But in fairness to the military, the fault isn’t entirely theirs. All the rest of us are playing make-believe too, playing make-believe that our military efforts abroad have an objective or rationale, that they are leading somewhere, that they are worth the candle. It isn’t just the military that needs to stop playing make-believe, its all the rest of us to, the entire of the political players and most all the voting populace. We all need to stop playing make-believe, even if we can’t grow up and become adults just yet. Children get spanked by mommy and daddy for messing things up in the master bedroom, and we will get an awful lot worse lesson from events in the future if we don’t.
This essay originally appeared on The Contrary Perspective.